Ethics, competition and a high-profile murder

Annie Le
Annie Le

A 24-year-old resident of Middletown, Conn., has been detained and identified as a “person of interest” in the murder of Yale University student Annie Le.

Most news outlets, including the New Haven Register and the New York Times, have identified the man as Raymond Clark, a Yale lab technician. Each includes a photo of him in police custody. Yet the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site, has declined to name him. In a story posted late Monday afternoon, editor Paul Bass wrote:

As of Monday afternoon, police had no suspects in custody in the investigation of graduate student Annie Le’s grisly death, [New Haven Police] Chief James Lewis said.

He told the Independent that his cops have been busy interviewing “and reinterviewing” “lots of people.” The department will not reveal the names of interviewees or “persons of interest,” according to Lewis.

“We don’t want to destroy people’s reputations,” Lewis said.

But Lewis reversed himself once Clark was taken into custody. The New Haven Police Department named Clark in a press release shortly after Clark had been removed from his Middletown apartment. Following Lewis’ news conference Tuesday night, the Independent’s managing editor, Melissa Bailey, wrote:

“We’ve known where he was at all along,” Police Chief James Lewis said at a press conference late Tuesday night at police headquarters. He spoke before a throng of video cameras.

Police named the target of the search, calling him a “person of interest.”

In an accompanying video Bailey shot of Lewis speaking to the media, Clark’s name does not pass from the chief’s lips. In a follow-up posted shortly before midnight, Bailey added: “A prime suspect is a 24-year-old Yale lab tech who until this past week worked at 10 Amistad St. among other locations. His identity was confirmed by officials close to the probe. The Independent is withholding his name.”

There’s certainly a strong case to be made for not naming Clark. Unless he is charged, he is not a suspect in Le’s murder. The possibility exists that an innocent person will have had his reputation permanently smeared.

But though the Independent’s — well, independence — is admirable, it’s also futile. (Which is why I named Clark.) Still, by taking a principled stand, Bass may well earn the respect of his readers. Take, for instance, this comment to the Independent, at the bottom of this story, from “ASDF,” posted Tuesday evening:

This better be the person who did it, because his name is being published at other sites. Thank you for the good sense to not publish his name at this time — ever since the NHPD took the case over, the leaks have been coming out at a pretty fast pace.

I really don’t understand what there is to gain by releasing his name — if you don’t have enough evidence to arrest him, then you don’t have enough evidence to smear him in the media.

Finally, I wonder why Chief Lewis folded as quickly as he did. In less than a day, he went from vowing not to name anyone who hadn’t been charged with the murder to blasting out Clark’s name in a press release.

Maybe he believed his hand had been forced, since Clark’s name was circulating anyway. Maybe he just couldn’t resist. But it strikes me that his first instinct was the one he should have followed.

More: Bass responds.

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10 thoughts on “Ethics, competition and a high-profile murder

  1. LFNeilson

    I’m amazed at how information is revealed in the press. Yes, it is the job of a reporter to tell the story. But a responsible journalist will not compromise an investigation or a prosecution by revealing sensitive information or making assertions that would be considered prejudicial. I found that I could maintain a good line of communication with cops if they knew I wouldn’t run stuff that would blow their case. The race for a scoop is somewhat traditional, but it sets a standard where irresponsible reporting becomes the norm.

  2. It’s the symbiotic relationship between cops and the press at work. The police attempt to preserve the case against Clark for the prosecution by not technically calling him a “suspect,” but get his name and face in the public eye for other possible victims & witnesses to come forward to the cops. Meanwhile, reporters get to argue at the bar who among them was the “first” to id Clark as the suspect.

  3. Aaron Read

    You wonder why Clark’s hand was forced? C’mon Dan, don’t you work for a college?!?!?

    I find it exceptionally hard to believe that a powerful & connected institution like Yale hasn’t been pulling every string they can…both directly and indirectly.

    Sure small colleges don’t have quite that much clout, and maybe even Northeastern doesn’t…but Yale churns out Presidents and Senators. You better believe they have friends in high places and are spinning as hard as they can to come out as clean as they can.

    I have no proof to any of this, of course…but again, I find it hard to believe that any public development in this case doesn’t have Yale’s fingerprints on it. The only question is how hard they pushed.

  4. “Unless he is charged, he is not a suspect in Le’s murder.”

    Umm… care to rephrase this Dan? There might be good arguments not to name suspects who haven’t been charged, particularly if the authorities aren’t publicly identifying them. But of course someone can be a suspect without being arrested or charged.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Derek: Not in the legal sense. And as a journalist, I would never call someone a suspect unless he had been charged. To do otherwise would be to invite a libel suit.

  5. Is suspect really a legal term, though? I thought it was just a journalistic shorthand.

    I agree that naming suspects before they’re charged raises a lot of complicated journalistic and legal issues. In general I’d hope the courts would recognize the principle of the “neutral reporting privilege” of the news media to report on the public utterances of police officials and other public officials. So if the police chief says John Smith is a suspect, the press should be able to report that, whether he’s charged or not. For example, the Illinois State Police have said Drew Peterson is clearly the prime suspect in Stacy Peterson’s disappearance, although he hasn’t been charged in that case.

    It becomes even more complicated when this is something the police isn’t saying publicly but leaking privately, as in the Jewell case. There are a lot of questions of fairness, as well as legal issues. It reminds me of the argument Judy Miller raised re: Iraqi WMD… is it enough to accurately report what the authorities think/suspect, or do you also need to be right on the underlying facts?

  6. dealey

    Obama for whatever reason diverted large sums of money to this lab in the stimulus. I’d be checking the grassy knoll on this one.

  7. Been Called Worse

    I would argue that the fact that Clark’s name was connected with the murder is in itself news, and should have been reported.

    NHI has a somewhat baffling policy for releasing names. Their crime log section which lists court sentencings (for crime already committed and found guilty) rarely includes the offender’s name, although sometimes it will mention their “street name”.

  8. Withholding information in order to not compromise the investigation was a smart move, and helps the NHI retain the trust of their sources.

    Obviously that strategy paid off, considering that the NHI “scooped” every other media publication in the country on virtually every aspect of this case.

  9. Juli

    Despite it being seemingly futile, I have a lot of respect for this NHI policy.

    I think it is important to point to the Jovin case as reason to not rush in calling out a potential suspect, which probably affected how this case was conducted locally.

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